This morning was not the best to redeem a writing promise. It was 3 degrees. Fully autumnal and fully chill. It froze my brain. I forgot what I intended to buy and forgot to take pictures of my local market for my Patreon readers. Every conversation at every stall was about cold hands, winter coming, autumn fruits beginning and the cold, the cold, the cold.
It’s not that cold – a mere 3 degrees. As one person noted “it’s not Anzac Day yet.” Anzac Day is the day Canberrans change to winter bedding and get out our coats. Almost everyone felt betrayed. Fire can kill us, heat can fume, but the shift to cold nights must arrive on 25 April.
I was going to talk about politics this week, but our politics are grim. Not as grim as other countries, but still of serious concern. When we’re dealing with the terrifying, just occasionally we need time out. If you ask me about what’s happening here in terms of human rights and the environment and other life-subjects, I promise I’ll give you a political post or two. In the meantime, I’ll give you that time out. This fortnight, it’s all about autumn.
Canberra, like most of south eastern Australia, has an autumn. We only call it ‘Fall’ when we mimic the US. For much of Australia it would be a misnomer to use the word ‘fall.’ Most of our trees are evergreen.
Our green is not anyone else’s green. Our landscape is not even the same as New Zealand’s landscape. Our landscapes are tinged with grey and with blue and even the air can be blue at times from eucalyptus haze. The rush of red and orange and brown that colours the landscape in places like the US and Canada is something we will travel to admire.
Canberra, having a proper cold season led into by a quite cool season has the potential for falling leaves. A few of the earliest suburbs to be built when the city was founded in the 1920s have enough exotic trees so that we have all the colours. They’re forming outside right now because of that 3 degree night.
It’s almost a tourist thing. I used to walk around Turner (when I lived there) and admire the maple and the oak. I still seek out big piles of leaves and scuff them and jump into them.
Snake season (when one avoids tall grass) is replaced by piles of leaves in Canberra, in some parts of the Blue Mountains, in some parts of the Southern Highlands, and it’s amazing: the scent of eucalyptus and swish of leaves underfoot. When I was a child we used to carefully sweep the leaves from our fruit trees to create such piles. In Canberra they’re common and messy and a lot of fun.
Of course, they’re also work. I’m not so good at cleaning the leaves from my patio. Such big piles of them! Sometimes, when children visit, they will sweep and clear it for me. The last child to do that came from Cooma. Cooma has the cold climate, but fewer falling leaves than Canberra. It’s about an hour’s drive from here into the Snowy Mountains. I thought this friend was doing me a huge favour (and, indeed, she was) but she was also playing games with the piles of rustling leaf.
Along with the leaves cluttering the landscape in such a glorious way comes autumnal food. The pomegranates are already here, but I’ve not seen a single chestnut nor any quinces. Medlars won’t appear (if they appear at all) until the frost hits. Bananas and citrus and apples are in season all year round, but in a fortnight we will reach real apple season. Granny Smiths are almost here (one farmer has promised me them for Passover), and all the historical varieties are inching their way to the farmers’ markets.
We grow so much fruit here and have such a varied climate that the seasons have predictable fruit and then all the exciting limited-time stuff appears. There are always choices. At the farmers’ market this weekend the limited time fruit was the outgoing rather than the incoming. The peaches and nectarines are still around, but really only good for cooking at this stage. The plums are still delicious, but only for a week or so longer. The sugar plums are already done and I’ve already turned a batch of them into prunes for Passover. Passover is different for me here.
Australia has so many climates. If I were moved by magic to a town in Australia and didn’t know where, I would find a farmers’ market and would be able to tell you from what the nearest major city was from the fruit that’s for sale. Sydney has a bit of everything, for it is distribution-central for most of NSW. Brisbane has more tropical fruit and far less stone fruit than Canberra, for Canberra is a temperate tableland climate with hot summers and sharp winters and a very fine line in cool climate wines and Brisbane is sub-tropical and I’m not sure the word ‘winter’ even has the same definition. Darwin is fully tropical and Hobart is properly temperate and rather like the south of England.
Darwin has the best mangoes and rambutan. Hobart and Canberra have the best apples. Canberra has the best cherries, but not because they grow in the Australian Capital Territory: one of the world’s major cherry export towns is not very far from us so we get the overflow from that international export market. (We’re a bit addicted to cherries in Canberra, so we tend to import from the rest of the world when our season runs out. This is why fruit from Young is so important to us.)
My fruit this week is passionfruit, mandarins, bananas and pomegranates. Every time I eat a pomegranate, I make Persephone jokes. There are a lot of Persephone jokes feeding the air this month.
All this sounds so very reasonable. It’s as if our various climates can match up to the northern hemisphere climate with a mere transposition of winter to summer and autumn to spring. We like to pretend that this match is real and straightforward, but that’s because we also like to think we’re close to Europe, just not geographically, obviously, though there are maps that show Australia as many Aussies wish it were .
The truth is that our seasons don’t work well with the four season spread. They don’t even work well with each other.
The good news is that this has been explained clearly for tens of thousands of years. The bad news is that most Australians are so busy worrying about the northern hemisphere that we don’t know that there is a more accurate seasonal account for each and every part of Australia. I can never remember the names of the different seasons for any of the regions, but the moment I saw them mapped out and the months applied to them it was as if our landscape and its seasons worked properly. Before then it had been a matter of jiggling things to make the seasons work, to be honest. Now it’s “I know why we change the bedding on 25 April.” It’s not just because it’s a public holiday and my birthday: it’s because in our corner of Australia, there is an actual seasonal change around then and it isn’t to autumn and it isn’t really to winter.
Indigenous experts have generously shared their knowledge with various government departments. The CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology are two of the bodies sharing this knowledge by turning it into maps and diagrams for people like me. I’m hopeful that those Australians who still dream of snow over Christmas will start to live in our actual climate one day.
Why there isn’t much actual Australian food at the farmers’ market is a different matter entirely. One day it won’t all look like Europe-in-Australia. One day there will be the fruit of the lillypilly, and maybe pigface and bush tomato. Bush tomato is what I dream of right now, with these cold nights. A few tiny dried fruit, crumbled into butter and maybe with a touch of cheese creates the best baked potato I’ve ever had.